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Volume 18, Issue 2: Stauron

Bulls of Bashan

Gary Hagen

"Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani"—Jesus' cri de coeur from the cross shortly before his final breath was a fulfillment of that which the Holy Spirit had spoken beforehand in Ps. 22:1 by the mouth of David concerning the crucifixion of Christ. The Book of Psalms is one of two Old Testament texts richest in prophecy depicting the torture and execution of the Savior. Psalm 22 stands above all others in the gospel narratives.

The eighth verse quotes those who would taunt and mock the Lord's Anointed saying, "Let him (the Lord) deliver him" (cf. Matt. 27:43). They pierced his hands and feet in verse 16 (cf. Luke 24:40), and they divided and gambled for his clothing in verse 18 (cf. John 19:23-24). These are but a few of the details from Golgotha's grisly scene foreshadowed by the psalmist.
One of the largest sections of this Psalm is an extended word picture of Calvary's mob of elite tormentors who surround the cross while his bones pop out of joint and his heart melts like wax. These enemies are referred to as an "assembly of the wicked," and their savagery is painted with of several vicious and predatory metaphors. The Septuagint calls these men a "synagogue of evildoers," a phrase reminiscent of Jesus' term for those who professed to worship God but whose deeds proved them to be a "synagogue of Satan."
That Christ's trial and murder were attended by his false accusers—chief priests and elders—is a well attested fact in the gospel accounts. And their slander and lies demonstrated that they belonged to the father of lies.
The first metaphorical depiction of this "synagogue of the wicked" is that of bulls in verse 12. But these are not just any barnyard cattle. Rather, they are called rehmim in verse 21—rendered as "wild oxen" in more recent translations.1 Feral bovine species are alien to most modern-day North Americans apart from bison or water buffalo. But our ancestors from Europe, Asia, and even North Africa were dreadfully familiar with a powerful and violent breed, better known as the auroch. And auroch bulls of Bashan were especially terrible for their enormity and untouchable strength. This fertile "land of giants" (Deut. 3:13) grew men more than twelve feet tall and bred many beasts of unusual size (Deut 3:11 cf. Ez. 39:18).
The Hebrew adjective that the psalmist uses to describe these bulls is 'abiyr, normally translated as "mighty" or "strong," but also as "chief." The Septuagint translates the phrase as tauroi piones, or "unctuous bulls." Most often this would mean "fat" or "greasy," but as an idiom it can also mean a smug and false spirituality. There is no reason to believe that the chief priests and elders of Israel were not illustrated by all of the above. Their splenetic control of a Roman governor, coercing him to condemn a clearly innocent man, was obvious. Their capacity to manipulate a kangaroo court, despite Pilate's seeing right through their envious motivations, also betrayed their pretended spiritual fervor (Mark 15:10).
But in Ps. 22:21, where Christ's prayer is for deliverance from "the horns" of these aurochs, we fail to fully appreciate the sense of this metaphor if all we picture is a chubby Holstein with six-inch stubs on his head. The ancient world knew a far more ferocious form of savage oxen, a breed of which legends were made.
The wild auroch bull was a terrifying beast, a brave hero's nightmare. The Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh depicts Gilgamesh and Enkidu slaying the mighty "Bull of Heaven." The legend of Hercules required him to perform twelve seemingly impossible feats; the seventh was to capture a wild bull from Crete and bring it to Argos. Later, this same bull wandered off to Marathon where it was killed by the hero Theseus.
Notwithstanding those mythic contexts, renowned primeval bulls were very real. According to Anglo-Saxon rune verses from the ninth century, aurochs were fearless and large horned. They were the subject of famous cave paintings at Lascaux alongside wooly mammoths. Yet living bulls of this species continued to exist as late as 1620 in Europe. Less recently, Assyrian kings and Pharaohs of Egypt proved their prowess by hunting these temperamentally rabid beasts. Rehmim were the urus or aurochs depicted on the ancient Babylonian seals, or portrayed in Assyrian temple reliefs. They were called rêmu in that sister Semitic tongue (Brown-Driver-Briggs). These animals were nearly seven feet high at the shoulder, with curved horns the length and thickness of a man's leg (and more resembling an elephant's tusk than the bony nubs on a bison). Several ancient sources give us glimpses of these awesome and highly aggressive creatures.
Herodotus mentioned that Greece imported the massive horns of Macedonian wild bulls (7.126). Julius Caesar gives more than a passing mention of this great beast toward the end of his well-known record of The Gallic Wars. "These uri are scarcely less than elephants in size, but in their nature, color and form are bulls. Great is their strength and great their speed; they spare neither man nor beast when once they have caught sight of them" (6.28). He goes on to inform us that "not even when taken very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tame," and that the killing of these animals often involved digging pits. The huge horns of the defeated enemy were then harvested, tipped with silver, and lifted up as trophy drinking horns at their most sumptuous feasts—a fitting boast to commemorate the brave victory won by the valiant champion who saved his people from marauding death (cf. Lk. 1:68-69).

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